For a fleeting moment on Tuesday, the political universe was kumbayaing in mutual disgust at Donald Trump’s meeting with Robert Kennedy Jr. Over the past few decades, RFK Jr.’s famous name has helped him get in the door to talk to important people, and it probably isn’t long before the person who is all jacked up to meet a Kennedy realizes the guy is totally cray-cray. Like most lucky-spermers, RFK Jr. pushes a number of environmental causes and gets really huffy when you ask him about his private jet use.
But it’s RFK Jr’s conspiracy theories about childhood vaccines that raise the ire of pretty much all thinking people, regardless of political affiliation. You can read more about him here and here, but the bottom line is that RFK Jr. is hard-peddling the scary and unscientific connection between vaccines and autism. Here’s just one typical comment from him: “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”
So it was with collective alarm that Trump Tower-watchers learned RFK Jr. was meeting with our next president. The fear was well-deserved, since Trump has also made a number of dangerous comments about vaccines, linking immunizations to cases of autism and suggesting we need different vaccination schedules for small children.
What A Great Opportunity to Raise My Profile
Anti-vaccine activism is not without consequences; parents are refusing to vaccinate their children in higher numbers. For the first time in years, outbreaks of measles and whooping cough are being reported as the needed “herd immunity” is compromised, jeopardizing the health of infants and ill children.
Much of this health hazard lies at the feet of folks like RFK Jr., so the idea that Trump was doing the anti-vax slow-jam with this quack a week before Inauguration Day understandably put Twitterverse over the edge (okay, pretty easy to do). Conservatives and liberals joined virtual hands to denounce the meeting, and RFK Jr. did little to ease fears about his future role in the new administration. “President-elect Trump was very thoughtful,” Kennedy told media after the meeting. “He asked me to chair a commission on vaccine safety.”
Ka-boom. Social media and the press went nuts. Major media outlets that lament the influence of fake news on an ignorant (Republican) electorate again sacrificed fact for clicks. USA Today’s headline blared: “Trump asks vaccine skeptic RFK Jr. to lead study on vaccine safety.” Time.com: “Why Donald Trump’s Choice of RFK Jr. as Vaccine Czar is a Terrible Idea.” Twitter moments led with this for a while: “RFK Jr. will chair vaccination safety committee for Trump.”
Trump asks vaccine skeptic RFK Jr. to lead safety probe https://t.co/OcZAZy831f
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) January 10, 2017
On Trump's and RFK Jr.'s dangerous, stupid anti-vaxxer bulls*** https://t.co/k1kAvf5Y5z
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) January 10, 2017
The topper—get ready for your shocked face—was from The New York Times. The paper of record’s headline was bad enough—“Trump Asks Critic of Vaccines to Lead Vaccine Safety Panel”—but the article was even worse: “Mr. Trump on Tuesday asked a prominent anti-vaccine crusader to lead a new government commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity, ushering debunked conspiracy theories about the dangers of immunization into the White House.”
So without verification from the Trump transition team, The New York Times posted an ominous article about how anti-vaccine nuts will soon be taking over the West Wing. And they took the word of the one Kennedy people actually run away from, not towards begging to autograph the latest Kennedy coffee table book about Appalachia.
How About a Lil’ Factchecking
Had any of the news outlets waited just a few hours, here’s what the Trump transition team said about the RFK Jr. meeting: “The President-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas. The President-elect is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism, which affects so many families; however no decisions have been made at this time. The President-elect looks forward to continuing the discussion about all aspects of Autism with many groups and individuals.”
Transition releasing a statement saying no decision has been made on this. https://t.co/8Ts8Z6dEqf
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) January 10, 2017
Now, to be fair, there is a perfectly good chance Trump floated the idea to Kennedy and, once the Trump team saw the huge backlash on social media, walked it back. That’s not a new maneuver in presidential politics. Yet the media should have checked it out before reporting it as fact and even going so far as to call RFK Jr. a “vaccine czar” without any confirmed details.
Let me be clear. Trump should not, for any reason, have met with Robert Kennedy Jr. I hope and pray some smart people in the administration will quickly educate Trump about the truth about vaccines and forcefully dissuade him from making any future statements not based in evidence. But the media’s behavior is just as bad. Making up headlines and legitimizing a publicity-seeking loon like RFK Jr. because it feeds your confirmation bias about Trump can do real and lasting damage.